First posted at Millennial.
I was especially excited for the 4th of July this year. It has always been a special holiday for me, seeing as I love both history and the beach, and I get heavy doses of both each Independence Day. This year, however, neither of those got me half as excited as what was taking place half a world away, in a city where no one cared that it was the 236th anniversary of our liberty.
The Higgs boson, commonly known as the God Particle, is what gives everything in the universe mass and has long been predicted but never seen. Until now. Researchers at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva announced this summer that they have likely detected it, and in the world of particle physics this is a Really Big Deal.
While the practical applications of this discovery far exceed my limited intellect, I am sure it is only a matter of time before someone comes up with one (and then commercializes it). As Pope John Paul the Great has noted, “so far has science come, especially in this century, that its achievements never cease to amaze us.” Similarly, the other His Holiness, the Dalai Llama, has written that “the amount of scientific knowledge and the range of technological possibilities are so enormous that the only limitations on what we may do may be the results of insufficient imagination.”
In his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Llama beautifully shows within the context of Tibetan Buddhism that Pope John Paul was correct in saying that “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” He goes on to propose ways that modern science and his ancient Buddhist faith can complement each other and further each other’s goals, but also finds a few places to critique science and its limitations from a Buddhist perspective as well.
Every chapter explores a different science, everything from quantum mechanics to neurobiology, but for my money the last is his best. In Ethics and the New Genetics the Dalai Llama becomes noticeably more impassioned, and he gives voice to worries about everything from cloning to Frankenfood. It is also here that he offers ardent cautions on not letting our scientific ability get too far ahead of our ethical assessments.
The human capacity for moral reasoning has kept pace with developments in human knowledge and its capacities. But with the new era in biogenetic science, the gap between moral reasoning and our technological capacities has reached a critical point. The rapid increase of human knowledge and the technological possibilities emerging in the new genetic science are such that it is now almost impossible for ethical thinking to keep pace with these changes.
While I disagree that our technological ability has outpaced our ability to think about the ethical ramifications, I do worry that if someone gets too wrapped up in their work—whatever the field—that the question of whether or not I can often times becomes more important than whether or not Ishould. Especially when we are talking about the fundamentals of life, it behooves us to take a step back from time to time and look at the bigger picture.
Here once again the late Pontiff for whom our generation is named cautioned us in Fides et Ratio: “And since it [the belief that science is the only form of valid knowledge] leaves no space for the critique offered by ethal judgement, the scientistic mentality has succeeded in leading many to think that if something is technically possible it is therefore morally admissible.”
Of course it is not only science that is susceptible to this fallacy. We have seen the effects of financial markets and consumer-driven excess where it was never considered whether or not pecuniary decisions were wise or just, but simply whether or not they were profitable. Bankers, like scientists, and all the rest of us for that matter, “lacking any ethical point of reference, are in danger of putting at the centre of their concerns something other than the human person and the entirety of the person’s life.”
While I was never much of a student of it, I do love science. I genuinely was excited when the Higgs boson was discovered, but I want to make sure that we never lose sight of the fact that these great scientific advances should be a means to improving the lot of humanity and not simply ends in themselves.
To those whom our late Holy Father has called “these brave pioneers of scientific research, to whom humanity owes so much of its current development,” the Dalai Llama has said that “the issue is no longer whether we should or should not acquire knowledge and explore its technological potentials. Rather, the issue is how to use this new knowledge and power in the most expedient and ethically responsible manner.”
If they, and we in our own lives, do that, I hope we will all someday hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.”